Katherine's Reviews > Hell on Two Wheels: An Astonishing Story of Suffering, Triumph, and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World

Hell on Two Wheels by Amy Snyder
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's review
Aug 07, 12

bookshelves: sport
Read in August, 2012

A friend recommended this book by describing it as engrossing despite not being expertly written, and I am basically going to agree.

This is a book about the Race Across America (RAAM), a little-known road biking race from California to Maryland, during which the clock doesn't stop. Racers win in part by sleeping as little as they can, and past winners have pulled off the feat in just over eight days.

It is also the first narrative nonfiction book about sports I can remember reading.

Yes, it's not up to New Yorker standards of writing. In particular, the prose is full of cliches that would probably have been pretty easy for a sensitive editor to help get rid of. Each one is like a little, irritating bump in the road. The structure and pacing are pretty good, though, and after a while the story tugs you along and you stop noticing the bumps as much.

There are a few stories within the book and for the most part they slide nicely off of each other. There's the drama of the race itself, both the women's race and the men's race, which isn't always a heated contest but was very much of one in 2009, the year the author covered the race. There's the background of why such an extreme event exists and what drives people to do it. And there are the gory details about the logistics of the race (the relationship between the riders and their 'follow crews,' which trail them in vans and motor homes all the way across the country, is especially interesting), and all the things that can happen to a cyclist's mind and body after riding for a week on one or two hours' sleep a night. Neck muscle failure, anyone? And I can't imagine there are many other sporting events in which the contestants are, pretty much without exception, hallucinating robustly by the time they cross the finish line.

There are a few attempts at developing themes from the material; I think my grad school professors would have said the author could have "pushed harder" on most of them. Comments about the relationship of endurance sport to spirituality were the most interesting to me, but they were basically just that, scattered comments. An account of the science about what happens to the body during such an ordeal felt perfunctory and incomplete. I guess I'm saying the book doesn't really find a thesis beyond simply covering its topic, the race and the personalities in it. Luckily the race itself is such a curiosity that it mostly works.

There are a few details that felt as if they were missing. Did 5-time RAAM champion Jure Robic of Slovenia make the author promise not to describe in detail the supposedly shocking and animalistic behavior he displayed during his first solo race, that so deeply scared himself, his crew, and his then wife? I can't think of why else she would mention this tantalizing detail--multiple times--and then not deliver the goods. Likewise, there were some allegations of cheating during the 2009 race that were mentioned but then not really followed up on (I guess I won't mention the specifics because, spoilers). I'm guessing the author didn't feel she had the journalistic firepower to judge their veracity, but the way they were pushed to the side was unsatisfying. She also covered one of the female front-runners extensively but barely mentioned the other. Was she refused an interview? Worth explaining, at least?

Those are my quibbles, but all in all I was strongly drawn into the book, which was a fast read in the best of ways. Maybe it's compelling because RAAM practically begs for you to feel ambivalent about it: it is both patently inspiring and unbelievably fucked up.

Again I'm bedeviled by the Goodreads starring system: if I could I would give 3.5 stars to almost everything I read. Three seems like a put-down, four an accolade deserved only in exceptional cases. But I'm going to hang up my snob hat and go with four stars as a reflection of how much pure enjoyment I got out of this read.

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